Religion and culture as obstacles to development?

PRI has a thought-provoking article about a town called Awra Amba in Northern Ethiopia that eschews traditional customs and religion as obstacles to development.  Awra Amba, with a population of about 500 people, has an average per-capita income of about double the national average, and lower mortality and higher literacy rates than surrounding regions.

Zumra Nuru, the founder of the town 40 years ago, dreamed of it being an economic and egalitarian utopia.  So what specifically have they done differently?

First, the population does not “follow organized religion” and thus does not rest on the Sabbath or holidays. Second, the town places a lot of emphasis on gender equality and education: “You will see women here doing what is traditionally considered ‘men’s work,’ like plowing, which effectively doubles the workforce.”

Apparently the neighboring towns were initially less than impressed and labeled the residents as heretics.  Nuru notes that “They threw a grenade right into the center of the village once, but luckily, no one was hurt. They’ve tried shooting members of our village. They’ve sabotaged our harvest on occasion.”  One neighbor from a Christian community argues that the residents are “selfish” and that he “hates them.”  Hmm, how Christian of him.

The development community of course has had a different reaction and the town has quickly become a darling of that group.  The article claims that neighboring communities are starting to be less angry and more curious about what the town is doing right and how they might be able to replicate it.  For instance, they are starting to send their kids to schools in Awra Amba, bring their corn to the town mill, and shop at the stores in town. So perhaps the message has started to spread.

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